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Kosovo's New President Takes Office Amid Controversy

Newly elected President of Kosovo Behgjet Pacolli paid a visit to the family of late former President Ibrahim Rugova in Pristina on February 23.
Newly elected President of Kosovo Behgjet Pacolli paid a visit to the family of late former President Ibrahim Rugova in Pristina on February 23.
Just three years after unilaterally declaring independence, the new country of Kosovo is learning the old truth that politics makes strange bedfellows.

As a result of political deal-making, Kosovo now has a president with close personal and business ties to a country that strenuously opposes Kosovo's independence and a prime minister who has been linked to allegations of trafficking in human organs during the 1990s conflict with Serbia.

During a rocky and controversial session of parliament on February 22, deputies elected 59-year-old Behgjet Pacolli as the country's third president. Pacolli, a Kosovo native with Swiss citizenship, is reputedly the world's richest Albanian, the multimillionaire owner of the Switzerland-based Mabetex construction giant.

Pacolli is best known in Kosovo for his murky ties to Russia, a country that has lobbied against Kosovo's independence on the international stage. As a result, he is deeply unpopular in the country; his New Alliance Kosovo party polled just 8 percent in the December elections and barely cleared the 5 percent hurdle for gaining seats in the legislature.

Nonetheless, Pacolli became the head of state following a back-room deal with Prime Minister Hashim Thaci's Democratic Party.

Kosovar Prime Minister Hashim Thaci in parliament on February 21
Under Kosovo's constitution, two-thirds of the 120 deputies are needed to elect a president on the first two ballots, but only a simple majority of 61 votes is needed on the third. Knowing this, several small opposition parties boycotted the proceedings.

In the first two votes, Pacolli received 54 and 58 votes. Following them, a recess of disputed legality was called before the third vote to give leaders time to rustle up the needed votes. After the recess, Pacolli was approved and, in short order, Thaci's government was also endorsed by a simple majority with the opposition boycotting.

Checkered Past

Thaci is under fire internationally following a report by a Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) rapporteur alleging involvement in heinous crimes during the war with Serbia in the late 1990s. The charges include allegations of involvement in trafficking in human organs taken from Serbian prisoners.

Kosovo media reported today that the controversial break between the second and third votes may have been partly instigated by U.S. Ambassador to Kosovo Christopher Dell. Dell was in the parliament chamber during the session and was seated next to a close aide of Pacolli's. Local media have aired footage from the session purportedly showing Pacolli receiving text messages from the aide conveying Dell's views of the proceedings.

In a statement, the U.S. Embassy in Pristina denied that the messages amounted to interference in Kosovo's political processes and deplored the local media's "unprofessional, unethical, and potentially illegal activity."

But it was Pacolli's ties to Russia that concerned most observers. Parliament member Visar Ymeri, of the Self-Determination party, explained to deputies why his party refused to back Pacolli.

"Pacolli's biggest business successes were gained due to his ties with Russia. Pacolli got rich in Russia and, in the meantime, Russia tends to bolster Serbia," Ymeri said. "Serbia as a state owes its political existence to Russia, and Russia is the biggest current and historical opponent of the Albanians' right to self-determination."

Friends In High Places

Pacolli's construction business really took off in the early 1990s, when he landed projects in the Far Eastern Russian city of Irkutsk. At the time, Irkutsk's mayor was Pavel Borodin. In 1993, Borodin became head of the Kremlin property office under President Boris Yeltsin.

In short order, Pacolli's Mabetex company was given contracts to renovate the Kremlin, a presidential residence, and the main buildings of the government, the Duma, the Federation Council, and the Audit Chamber.

"Behgjet Pacolli wasn't yet such a successful businessman as he is now. He was a middleman, [allegedly] helping to launder the money of people like Pavel Borodin, former head of the presidential property office, and several ministers and deputy ministers," says Vladimir Ivanidze, a Russian journalist who investigated and reported on Mabetex's work in Russia.

"I remember the cynicism of Borodin himself, who promised to put me in prison for five years. But fate turned out so that he was the one who ended up in jail."

Pacolli and Mabetex were investigated by Russian Prosecutor-General Yury Skuratov. Borodin was arrested in New York in 2001, but was released after the Russian government paid a bond of 5 million Swiss francs ($3 million). The case against him was closed in 2002 after Russia refused to release key documents. Borodin has served as the head of the Russia-Belarus Union since 2000.

Skuratov was hounded out of office in 1999 following the television broadcast of a videotape purporting to show him cavorting with prostitutes. That video was endorsed as genuine at a press conference by then-Federal Security Service (FSB) head Vladimir Putin and then-Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin.

Pacolli was accused of paying off credit cards that were used by Yeltsin himself and his two daughters. The case against him in Switzerland was dropped in 2002. The head of the Swiss investigation was Carla Del Ponte, who went on to serve as chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and who originally investigated the organ-trafficking allegations against Thaci.

Ivanidze charges that Moscow covered up for Pacolli. "Pacolli was part of the corruption scheme in Russia, from which the Swiss didn't get any documents," he says. "In order to charge Pacolli with financial crimes, the Swiss needed documents from Russia -- which were not provided, naturally."

Mabetex also has lucrative state projects in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Italy. The group reportedly participated in the construction of some 40 percent of the buildings in the Kazakh capital, Astana.

The extent of Pacolli's current ties to Russia is not known. He is married to a 33-year-old from St. Petersburg whose maiden name was Maria Shichkova.

Kosovo political analyst Ylli Hoxha suspects Pacolli maintains powerful connections in Moscow, and he has concerns about Pacolli's credentials due to his past.

"Mr. Pacolli was appointed by the Russian Foreign Ministry as intermediary in the [1990s] conflict between Kosovars and Serbs, which consisted of efforts to organize a meeting between the Kosovo Albanian leadership and [Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic," Hoxha says. "He was an envoy of an important state in a conflict that turned out to be an important conflict, which ended with the NATO bombardment. Achieving such a position within the Russian Foreign Ministry indicates a solid relationship between him and this institution."*

Hoxha notes that Pacolli's wealth derived from Russian government funds and that Mabetex continues to depend on state contracts in countries where the Kremlin has enormous influence.

"Mr. Pacolli will inevitably be concerned with the policies that the Russian state implements. In itself, this is a relationship which places Pacolli in a dependent position on the Russian authorities. Having in mind that Kosovo is a state established through Western support and that is contested mainly by the Russian state -- this relationship is very worrying."

* CORRECTION: Mr. Hoxha's quote has been amended to correct a mistake in transcription.

written by Robert Coalson, based on reporting by RFE/RL's Balkans Service from Pristina and RFE/RL's Russian Service from Moscow
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